Thursday, September 26, 2013

"The scaffolding of spacetime farted and collapsed", a look at Marvel Boy by Grant Morrison and J.G.Jones

"Sole survivor...A real 'why me' situation, I should think." -Doctor Midas

On my recent vacation to Colorado, I was fortunate enough to check out Mile High Comics in Denver, a behemoth of a comic book store with just about anything an eager reader could want. I made the mistake of not having a proper shopping list prepared and wandered the shelves of trades and hardcover collections just trying to take it all in. It's not the prettiest store I've ever been in, but it's easily the biggest and I honestly felt a little overwhelmed. Then I spotted it; a golden bullet pressed between ruby red lips. Sitting between some Marvel Essentials and a Rocket Raccoon hardcover was Grant Morrison and J.G. Jones' Marvel Boy. Morrison is easily my favorite comic book writer of the modern era and snagging a copy was a no-brainer. Upon finishing this little gem that night, I flipped right back to the first page and started it all over again. Pretty soon it was three in the morning and I was on my third read through. This is a very special comic, and still quite ahead of its time over twelve years later. I plan to discuss this comic in great detail here, so let me go ahead and say, "SPOILER ALERT" and all that. Now let's jump in.

The saga of Marvel Comics in the 1990's isn't a boring one to say the least. Bad business deals, bankruptcy, creative stagnation, and harmful editorial fiefdoms plagued the House of Ideas. In 1998, the Heroes Reborn line, spearheaded by Jim Lee and Rob Liefeld, had turned out to be a flop and Marvel then desperately shuffled the "Reborn" heroes back into the regular Marvel Universe. While guys like Kurt Busiek, George Perez, and Mark Waid were able to do some quality work on titles like Avengers and Captain America, Marvel had ultimately just reverted to the status quo. They were making good comics, but they were also making the same comics. When Jimmy Palimiotti and future editor-in-chief Joe Quesada got the green light to start a premium line of comics called Marvel Knights featuring marquee names like director Kevin Smith, industry veteran Christopher Priest, and rising stars Garth Ennis and Paul Jenkins, fans didn't exactly hold their breath for something new and exciting. For once the Marvel hype machine wasn't just blowing smoke however, and the Marvel Knights line churned out some damn fine comics. Daredevil, Black Panther, The Inhumans, and The Punisher all made a splash and before long, a second wave was solicited. That brings us to Marvel Boy, a six issue miniseries that may be (with apologies to Warren Ellis and The Authority) the first real twenty-first century comic book.

First off, let's talk about the creative team. Grant Morrison is a writer that usually divides the readership of any title he works on. No one can deny he's a great idea man and Marvel Boy is nothing if not a collection of interesting ideas. No matter how tightly he plots a story or how straightforward his dialogue is, he will always be considered a "confusing" writer. Marvel Boy is an easy story to follow, and the themes of rebellious youth and boy meets girl are so transparent it could almost warrant harsh criticism if it weren't so damn charming. There are threads in this story left dangling that future writers could've ran with, but we'll come back to that disappointing afterword in a bit. Another thing about Morrison as a writer that has always fascinated me is how visually oriented his comics are. He isn't afraid to cut out the more needless captions and let the artist do the heavy lifting. That brings us to J.G. Jones, the pencilier of this miniseries. Jones is a utility player who can do it all: action, expression, layouts, etc. He's in the same class of artists as guys like Frank Quitely, who can break down Morrison's stories and give every important element equal attention, while never having to sacrifice character. Inker Sean Parsons is delicate with his line work as well. Lines are thick where they need to be, and details aren't muddied or lost. The careful inking gives the book a hi-def look, and I'd put it up against anything the "hot" artists are doing right now. Heck, I'd even say current Marvel hits like Hawkeye and Young Avengers are finally catching up to the Morrison/Jones/Parsons squad.

Marvel Boy is the story of Noh-Varr, the last survivor of a doomed alien starship. His crew and family are destroyed when their Kree exploration vessel has to make an emergency landing on Earth after traversing the omniverse and comes into conflict with Earthling interests. From the beginning, Noh-Varr is a passionate, angry teenage outcast on a world unlike and inferior to his own. His first experience with humanity is being shot out of the sky by them and the series follows his vendetta against the human race. We have all been judged by an angry powerful alien by the worst and most war-mongering of our kind. Way to go, us. With the aid of his living computer Plex (based visually on the Kree Supreme Intelligence from The Avengers), Noh-Varr wages a one man war with the human race, with New York City as the beachhead. In a very pre-9/11 display of destructive power, Noh-Varr wrecks huge chunks of the city and commits vandalism on a cosmic scale, burning the words "FUCK YOU" into a section of NYC. The Avengers are elsewhere, the F.F. are occupied, and only S.H.I.E.L.D. seems to be present to deal with this threat. And let us not forget, Noh-Varr is the hero in this story. His poor first impression of Earthlings and his aloof observations almost dare the reader not to agree with him and root for him. He lost his crewmates, his family, and his lover in one fell swoop and the havoc he wreaks is nothing more than a victim of a tragedy, flailing about against reason. Throughout the story, Noh-Varr experiences the various stages of grief on an epic scale, and while his actions and their destructive nature are ridiculous, his emotion is genuine. By the end of this comic, you might be more than a little frustrated with humanity too.

And now our villain: the multi-trillionaire scavenger scientist Doctor Midas. Midas is a wicked character design. A chain smoking Dr. Doom-type, clad in a golden version of Tony Stark's silver age Iron Man armor and a black leather trench coat. Unlike Dr. Doom however, Midas has no regal quality to him. He's just stupid rich and sociopathic, bathing himself in cosmic rays and wishing for powers like the Marvel heroes of the silver age. He's almost representative of a 90's fanboy, marveling at a heroes appearance or power set, but giving no thought to any complicated moral hang-ups. The first time we see Midas, he has the sole survivor of the starship crash Noh-Varr captured and plans to harvest his strange alien organs and steal the engine from his ship. Midas wants to use Noh-Varr's cosmic engine to shower himself in even more cosmic rays and become a true superbeing, which he feels characters like the Fantastic Four were just on the verge of changing into. One thing Midas does have in common with Dr. Doom is vanity. We learn through his interactions with his daughter that Midas finds not only his cosmic ray scars hideous, but even the human body itself is disgusting  to him. Midas is a 90's comic book villain who wants to transform into something as interesting as the silver age characters were in their time. His methods of fighting and trying to recapture Noh-Varr, such as disguising a public assassination as a movie shoot in the middle of the city (he even pays off the witnesses and tells them they were 'extras'), are pretty clever though. Midas definitely gets his in the end when Morrison turns his King Midas-inspired catchphrase on its ear in one of the books only moments of true comedy.

If the entirety of this series was just angry Noh-Varr clashing with sinister Doctor Midas and the dregs of humanity, it would be little more than a weak attempt at "widescreen" comics in the same vein as The Authority. It's with the introduction of Oubliette, Midas's daughter, that the story takes on a new dimension and direction. Oubliette is a teenage outcast like Noh-Varr who has been raised by her insane father to be a homicidal henchwoman in a leather fetish suit. She hates her dad, she hates herself, and blah blah blah. She is first sent by her father to capture or kill Noh-Varr, but ends up saving him, partly out of pity and partly out of wanting to piss off her daddy. Her back and forths with her father are not unlike any teenage girl going twelve rounds with an overprotective dad, but with vocabulary that could only find root in a comic book. Once again, Morrison plays out a very basic story of boy meets world and boy meets girl on such an epic scale that it feels fresh. Noh-Varr already hates Midas for shooting down his ship, but now he can stick it to him by bragging about being with his daughter. Their relationship is never romantic however. While the characters tight clothing belies an S&M club and their sweat-drenched patter sounds like pillow talk, Noh-Varr and Oubliette really end up more like brother and sister. Their isolation also makes them kindred spirits. Obliette gets to learn a little about Noh-Varr's people, the Kree, and in the climax of the book, Noh-Varr reveals he still carries the remains of his Kree lover, "but it's hard to love a carbonized, irradiated, skeletal structure." In the radioactive light of the cosmic engine, Noh-Varr and Oubliette share a tender moment and compare their shitty situations. The mask her father forces her to wear supposedly hides a hideous facial scar, but when Noh-Varr coaxes her to remove it, there are none to be had. In this scene we see the effect (in a very comic booky kind of way) that an abusive parent can have on a child. It's almost touching and you start to like a character who only a few minutes ago was threatening innocent people on a subway with imminent death.

The three main moving parts of Marvel Boy are Noh-Varr, Midas, and Oubliette. As far as characters go, they lend themselves to much more analysis than I am even capable of, but the other main villain of the piece is just as interesting. Hexus the Living Corporation is more of a malevolent concept than a proper character, but it's through Hexus that Morrison gets to play with some ideas about commercialism that were very prevalent around the turn of the millennium and are still relevant today. A play on the old "Brand X" idea, Hexus is a living logo that expands itself across billboards and bus stop ads, possessing eager businessmen and entrepreneurs and turning their delusions of grandeur against them. Hexus hires employees and spreads its influence at a super accelerated rate, taking over most of Manhattan and the world market in issue three. The Hexus logo creeps along in the first two issues, and eagle-eyed readers can spot it in the backgrounds. Hexus was safely contained by Noh-Varr and his crew before the series began, but breaks free when their ship is shot down. Hexus is preparing a "product launch" called D2K1, similar in theme to the acronym-laden advertising of the late 90s. D2K1 is in fact a "digital concentration camp" where Hexus will realize its full potential and corner the market on everything. The voice of Hexus, the body jumping Mister Greepy, puts it best. "Hexus grows. Hexus replicates. Soon, Hexus will own everything. We will license the air you breathe and the thoughts we allow you to think." Noh-Varr is only able to defeat Hexus by means of corporate sabotage. Using Plex, he hacks into Hexus's systems and gives their secrets and data to rivals like Coca Cola and Sony. In turn, the other corporations devour Hexus like ants on a larger insect, and Noh-Varr has (reluctantly) saved the day. Hexus is the danger of a monopoly in the form of a space-based thought parasite.

The Following is an excerpt from an interview with Grant Morrison around the time of Marvel Boy's release. "We've only started to experiment but already MARVEL BOY looks like nothing else around. Some of the stuff J. G. is doing is like an update of the whole Steranko Pop Art approach to the comics page. Instead of Orson Welles, op art and spy movies, J.G.'s using digital editing effects, percussive rhythms, cutting the action closer and harder, illuminated by the frantic glow of the image-crazed hallucination of 21st century media culture and all that. Comics don't need to be like films. They don't need to look like storyboards. This is not to dis the many great comics which have used filmic narrative techniques but I wanted to go back and explore some of the possibilities of comics as music."
Comic books as music is something Grant Morrison has toyed with in a few projects since, including We3 and Final Crisis, to varying degrees of success. This narrative style has brought new energy to his 21st century work in some cases (We3) and turned off or confused readers in other cases (Final Crisis). I would say Grant and J.G. are only partly successful in their attempt here. The first couple of issues are laid out extremely well, but only in certain sequences of the latter half, do the quick cuts and rapid fire panels start to occur. Again, I think the first two issues are really more like the "widescreen" books that people like Warren Ellis and Bryan Hitch had made popular during this time. There is a sequence when Noh-Varr is fighting Oubliette for the first time that does read like a dubstep song, if that makes any sense. In the action sequences like that one, artist J.G. Jones cuts out some of the rhythm and delivers bass drop after bass drop. Whereas Final Crisis felt like a symphony, Marvel Boy is like nu-metal, with quiet pseudo-depressing verses, and loud, banging choruses. Nevertheless, kudos to the creative team for trying something new and fun to read.

Marvel Boy ends on a sort of cliffhanger, but the first arc is pretty neatly wrapped up. Noh-Varr is a captive of S.H.I.E.L.D. in the end and viewed as a political prisoner by much of the public and a terrorist by others. Obliette, after lashing out and sending her father Doctor Midas to a sub-dimensional hell, is rallying for him on the outside, spreading the word about the superior Kree way of life. One of the last scenes in the series is Obliette destroying Disney World and making a televised threat against the powers that be for holding Noh-Varr. Basically, boy meets world, boy meets girl, and finally boy gets in trouble. Noh-Varr ends the book on a smart-ass remark, and claims that his prison will one day be the capitol city of a new Kree Empire. Our hero is dragged away ranting and raving like a scorned supervillain, or just an angry child if you prefer. The character has since been featured in Brian Bendis's Avengers run as The Protector, but the more interesting bits about his character were kind of lost. In more recent comics Kieron Gillen has used the character to great effect in the current volume of Young Avengers, so at least Noh-Varr has a home.

Marvel Boy isn't a complete success, but like I mentioned up above, it's a very special book and maybe even still a bit ahead of its time. Noh-Varr is a 21st century Peter Parker. He's a young loner who suffers great tragedy and must learn about power and responsibility. If Stan Lee and Steve Ditko were children of the 70's and were creating a new teenage hero in the 90's, I'd like to think it would look something like Marvel Boy.


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